The Art of a Deal

June 26, 2018
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It was just about two o’clock in the afternoon on Halloween, two hours before the NFL trade deadline.  Bills’ general manager Brandon Beane’s phone rang.  On the other end was Carolina Panthers’ GM Marty Hurney, who wanted to revisit a conversation the two were having just the day before.  

Beane’s Bills were 5-2 and playing well.  Ending the organization’s 17-year playoff drought was looking more and more possible each week.  But to keep winning, Beane felt the team still needed to add another piece to their roster, especially at wide receiver since Jordan Matthews was just coming off a knee injury and there was still some uncertainty surrounding it.  

The former co-workers had talked the previous day about several players on the Panthers’ roster.  During that conversation, Beane mentioned Kelvin Benjamin.  As just having served as the assistant GM in Carolina the previous two seasons, he says he “had some intel” that maybe things weren’t perfect between the wideout and the Panthers.  But Hurney blew that off and gave no indication he was willing to move the 2014 first round pick.

Maybe that was just posturing, because the phone call came the next day and Hurney was suddenly willing to listen.  At first, Beane and his former boss couldn’t come to an agreement on fair compensation.  But there was enough interest on both sides that they knew they could get something done if they continued to work on it.  So, they went back-and-forth for almost an hour and a half.

Finally, around 3:20 p.m., things really started to heat up.  The two knew they were up against a 4 p.m. deadline and needed to get it finalized.  About a half hour later, just ten minutes before the deadline, they did.  The Bills would send third and seventh round draft picks to Carolina in exchange for Benjamin.  But the deal still couldn’t become official until the league was notified, the paperwork was submitted, and both parties signed off.

With only ten minutes to spare, there was no room for error.  When any trade is agreed upon, one team types up the exact terms and submits it to the league. Then someone from the league office calls the other team to make sure they concur with the exact compensation and wording.  Things don’t always go perfectly.  That same day, the Browns and Bengals had reportedly agreed on a deal that would send quarterback A.J. McCarron to Cleveland, but miscommunication between the two sides allowed the deadline to pass, nixing the trade altogether.

Back in Buffalo, since it was so close to the deadline and things had to be on-point quickly, Beane went to Senior Vice President of Football Administration Jim Overdorf’s office and got on speakerphone with people in Carolina to make sure everyone was on the same page as far as the terms of the deal before they were submitted to NFL offices in New York for approval.  They were, and the deal was finalized and approved.

That trade for Benjamin was one of seven deals Beane made involving players after his arrival in Buffalo in mid-May of 2017.  Some teams go years without making a single deal that involves an actual player and not just draft picks.  But from July 26, when he shipped QB Cardale Jones to the Chargers, to Halloween afternoon when he acquired Benjamin, Beane made seven trades involving a total of ten players.  A career’s worth for some GMs.

In an exclusive behind-the-scenes interview with WGR, Beane detailed each one of those seven deals, what his thought process was behind each of them, how the two sides negotiated fair compensation, and what goes into the personal and professional aspects of The Art of a Deal.
 

THE NEGOTIATOR

Brandon Beane has always loved the process of negotiating.  As he sits in a chair with a window behind him where we can see the sun shining down on New Era Field less than a couple hundred yards away, he recalls being in Cancun for his honeymoon and how much he enjoyed having to negotiate prices at the local market.  He even says “they’re offended if you don’t negotiate with them” because it’s such a way of life for those sellers.  

“You’d walk away (without a deal) and some guy would come down and tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘alright, alright, I’ll do it!,’” he says, while laughing, saying he and his wife, Haley, still have some of the items they purchased on that trip roughly 20 years ago.  Still today, Beane is the negotiator in his own house.  From items at the market to new cars, he tries to get the best deal he can, and likes doing it.

But there’s a big difference between haggling over the price of a handbag and trading football players.  They’re real people, with real lives and families.  When players get dealt, their entire life changes in an instant.  Knowing that is the toughest part of the job for Beane.  Even as he’s just talking with me about the process of having to tell a player he’s been traded, his demeanor changes.  You can see it weighs on him just thinking about the fact that business decisions he makes have such personal impact.

“That’s hard,” he says with a deep breath.  “If you're moving somebody on, you do care about them (and) their family who is moving, because it's hard.  I just moved my family up here.  It's not easy and I definitely do not take that lightly.  (But) at the end of the day, I have an obligation to the (owners Terry and Kim) Pegulas to make the best decisions that I can for this organization.  But this is a hard job and a hard position to be in because sometimes you have to set your personal feelings aside and do what's right for the job that you're in.”

Once Beane does sign off on a deal and sends a player to another team, his staff makes sure they have whatever they need to make the transition as smoothly as possible.  

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“You know it's real and you try to be honest and try to tell them as much as you can tell them,” he says.  “You tell them we’ll support them and, ‘is there anything we can do?  We've got people here….what do you need?  You need some help getting to the airport?  You need someone to watch your dog?’  We do talk to them about those things if they've got anything we can help with.  It's not that we don't care about them, because they are people.”

And, of course, Beane doesn’t operate in a vacuum.  He has a head coach who he collaborates with on every personnel decision, and he keeps ownership informed as soon as a deal gets close to happening.  

But sometimes, like in the Benjamin trade, things happen and decisions have to be made quickly.  In that situation, Beane says he called Terry Pegula while the paperwork was being processed.  “I said, ‘Terry, just a heads-up, we’re trading for Kelvin Benjamin.”  He then explained to Pegula the history of Benjamin and said he’d call him back once everything was done.

Beane has access to see every NFL players’ contract.  And because of his extensive background working in various roles within a front office, he understands how to break them down and what salary cap ramifications come with each deal.  But, if things need to get done quickly and Beane has to pull together several moving parts, or if there’s a contract they’re about to take on that he’s concerned with for some reason, he relies on Overdorf for assistance, asking him to take a look to make sure there’s nothing he’s overlooking that could hurt them.


WIN-WIN

The ultimate goal of any trade is to make his team better, whether that’s in the short-term, long-term, or ideally both, but Beane says there’s more to it.  He’s dealing with colleagues and other professionals who want the same thing as him.  So, at the end of the process, he’s hoping for a “win-win” situation, where both parties feel like they got something of value that will help them achieve their goals.

Of course, if it doesn’t make sense for the Bills he’s not going to make a trade.  That’s his first obligation and priority, but he also wants the team on the other end to get something out of it.  “It’s got to make sense to them, too,” he says. 

“You love it when it's a win-win, when it's good for them.  They have to know what they're doing, so I can't tell you if it's a win for them.  But you hope when they look back a year or two later they go, ‘that was good for us, too.’”

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THE DEALS

July 26: Bills trade QB Cardale Jones to the Los Angeles Chargers for a 2019 7th round pick

This was Beane’s first deal as GM of the Bills.  He had been on the job for just over two months.  The Bills had four quarterbacks on the roster and Beane says since it was Sean McDermott’s first team as a head coach, along with a new offensive coordinator in Rick Dennison, they had concerns about how many reps each QB would be able to get as they all tried to learn everything anew.  As they were planning and talking about that, the Chargers reached out to inquire about Jones, knowing the Bills had just drafted Nathan Peterman, signed T.J. Yates as a free agent, and just brought back Tyrod Taylor on a restructured contract.

“In reality, four quarterbacks might be hard,” he says.  “So once the Chargers approached, we felt like this answers our question, and we talked about it, and I think it went on for a day or so.  I thought we came to what was a fair deal for them and for us, because you’re not just going to give him away, you’ve got to get something you’re going to get some value out of.”

August 11: Bills trade CB Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for WR Jordan Matthews and a 2018 3rd round pick
AND trade WR Sammy Watkins and a 2018 6th round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for CB EJ Gaines and a 2018 2nd round pick

Not only were these two deals finalized on the same day, Beane says he was working on both of them at the same time all along and needed to get them done together because he didn’t want either the Rams or Eagles to know he was dealing with the other team. If either did, that would put him at a disadvantage because the Rams, for example, would know he was more cornerback-needy after trading Darby, and the Eagles would know he needed a wide receiver if they saw he dealt Watkins to L.A.. So, the timing was critical.

“I talked specifically about the timing with each (team),” he recalls.  “From a leverage standpoint I felt like, ‘alright, I can get these deals done at the same time without telling each team.  I thought that helped my leverage.”

Prior to Beane’s arrival, the Bills decided not to exercise their fifth-year option on Watkins, meaning he was about to enter the final year of his contract after being selected fourth overall in 2014.  Other teams saw that as a sign the Bills might be willing to part ways before losing him for nothing, and Beane says he started getting calls about Watkins after just a few weeks on the job.  But Beane wasn’t ready to engage in those talks yet.

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“I said, ‘no, I want to get to know him more. I want to see him when we get the pads on for a little bit,’” he says of those conversations.

Later in the offseason, a couple teams circled back.  “But the Rams were the most aggressive in what they were willing to give up,” Beane says, which meant he was then able to set a threshold for what it would take to get Watkins.  From there, the Bills’ GM remembers the back-and-forth with L.A. went on for about a week before he was comfortable with what the return would be.  

In an interview the day after the trade was made, head coach Sean McDermott said Gaines’ position flexibility (inside or outside CB), his ability to tackle, and his technique and awareness is what attracted the scouting department to him and why they identified the cornerback as a piece of the trade.

As for the Darby deal, Beane says the Eagles were in the market for a cornerback.  They had drafted Washington’s Sidney Jones in the second round four months earlier knowing Jones was going to miss most, if not all of the 2017 season after suffering an Achilles injury at his Pro Day.  They also liked Darby’s man-to-man skills, according to Beane.

Eagles GM Howie Roseman called him about the third-year cornerback.  Beane was interested in working something out but told him he needed more than a draft pick.  He wanted to get a player back, as well.  So the two started discussing a couple different players on the Eagles’ roster (Beane did not specifically mention who), but when he realized the Watkins-to-L.A. deal was probably going to happen, he zeroed in on Matthews knowing he’d need a wide receiver, and the deal got finalized.

August 28: Bills trade LB Reggie Ragland to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 2019 4th round pick

As training camp wore on, it was apparent Ragland was being buried on the Bills’ depth chart.  Preston Brown was clearly the starter at middle linebacker and Ragland was even dropped down to the third team in most practices.  He was also coming off an ACL injury that cost him his entire rookie season.  The Chiefs were looking for a linebacker and saw the reports coming out of Buffalo of where Ragland stood.  Beane says that’s when they first reached out to him.

“I just said, ‘listen, I really like what he's bringing and he's getting better, he's coming out of this (ACL) thing,’” Beane says of his initial conversation with the Chiefs.  

“I wanted to make sure that we were okay with moving on with him.  So, I kind of just said, ‘listen, let's circle back (later).  I want to see him a little more.  I want to get to know him.  I think he's a really good kid,’  and so I then circled back with them towards the end of cut-downs, and that went on for maybe two days on what I felt the fair compensation was.”

September 3: Bills trade CB Kevon Seymour to the Carolina Panthers for WR Kaelin Clay and a 2019 7th round pick

After bringing in Gaines and seeing the talent Tre’Davious White brought to the field, the Bills suddenly had some depth at cornerback.  But with the departure of Watkins, and after losing Marquise Goodwin via free agency, they also had a need for someone who could stretch the field in the passing game.  Matthews was a nice addition to the wide receiver group, but he was more of a possession receiver than a vertical threat.

“We were looking for a little bit of speed and they were looking for another (cornerback) out there,” Beane recalls.  “And we had a tight competition at corner at the time and really felt like the one thing we were missing was a vertical speed guy (at wide receiver). We felt like people might stack the box with Jordan (Matthews), Zay (Jones) and Andre Holmes, and that we didn't have that guy to at least back them off the box on Shady.  So, people aren't just going to give speed away.  That was kind of the best thing that we could find, and we were also able to get a pick out of it, too.”

October 28: Bills trade DT Marcell Dareus to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 2018 conditional 6th round pick that eventually became a 5th round pick

Well before Beane’s arrival in Buffalo, there were plenty of questions about Dareus’ future, and problems in his past.  Tardiness, multiple suspensions by both the league and team, and questions about his dedication to himself and his team had already spanned two other head coaches. Then, three weeks into the preseason, Dareus was sent home from the Bills’ exhibition game in Baltimore for violating team rules.  

Given all that, other teams starting calling Beane soon after.  The GM was listening, but still wasn’t eager to part ways with the former third overall pick.

“Marcell has talent,” Beane recognized.  “We were really trying to get him to do things our way, every day.  And I thought he took strides, but I don't know that we were ever going to get him there.  So we just said, ‘let's see where it goes.’ ”

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Once the 53-man roster was finalized and Dareus wasn’t dealt, Beane fully expected him to be a part of the team for the rest of the season and to see how he acclimated himself to the Bills’ way of doing things.  He says he never contacted anyone after that to see if they were still interested in trading for Dareus.

But just before the trade deadline, the Jaguars called.

“They were making a playoff push and their run defense was suffering a little bit,” according to Beane, adding that Jacksonville knew the Bills had been having discussions about Dareus with other teams before final cuts back in September.

But the two sides couldn’t totally agree on compensation for Dareus.  The Bills wanted a fifth round pick, arguing Dareus’ talent was clearly worth the price.  But because Jacksonville was going to have to take on his massive contract and cap hit, on the hook for roughly $50 million through 2021, and also didn’t fully know Dareus’ medical condition before giving him a physical after a deal, they were holding firm on only offering a sixth round pick.

But the two sides were so close that neither wanted to walk away from making it happen.  They continued to talk and got creative.  

Beane says he told the Jags, “if you aren’t going to give me a hard fifth, at least give me a chance to get it.  You’re arguing, ‘what if he can’t play?’  Well, what if he does play?  Then I want fair compensation.”

Both sides agreed, Dareus was dealt for the conditional pick and the Bills shed themselves of a contract they didn’t want anymore.  Although they’ll take a $13.56 million salary cap hit in 2018 for the bonus money they already shelled out to Dareus, the trade cleared roughly $47 million in salary cap space for Beane’s Bills from 2019-2021.

Dareus played all nine remaining games with the Jaguars and they made the playoffs, which meant Beane got the fifth-round pick he was originally looking for.  Of course, the Bills also made the playoffs, ending the organization’s seventeen-year postseason drought. 

So, in the end, it was exactly what Brandon Beane hopes for when he makes a deal.

Win-Win.
 



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